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Violence, Representation, Responsibility. Films of Michael Haneke by Peter Brunette

You never show reality, you only show its manipulated image.
-Michael Haneke


Michael Haneke burst out of the festival ghetto onto the international
art-house scene in 2005 with his challenging and (to some) distressingly
open-ended French-language film Cache (Hidden) , and he solidified his
position as a major contemporary auteur by winning the Palme d’Or at
the Cannes Film Festival in zoog. He is a provocative figure who likes
to disturb people, most notably his audiences.
The overarching themes that unite Haneke’s films are not especially
novel: the alienation from self and others that contemporary society routinely
produces, the attendant loss of our common humanity (what he has
called “our social and psychological wound”) , the grinding attenuation of
human emotion, the increasingly elaborate systems of communication
that manage to communicate less and less, and the relationship between
reality and its representation. These are themes that have been around
at least since the 1g6os, in the films of the Italian master Michelangelo


Antonioni, among others, but they have been brilliantly updated through
the application of fresh and even iconoclastic cinematic techniques by
this surprisingly old-school art-film director.
Partly because these general themes are so familiar, one aspect of
Haneke’s films that has garnered a great deal of attention throughout the
latter part of his career has been the “subtheme” of the specific role of
contemporary media in producing such social alienation. Most important
of all, however, has been his complex and multifaceted exploration of
violence. At his press conference at Cannes in May zoog, Haneke baldly
stated, “All my films are about violence .” Though it takes a different
form each time, probably the most controversial aspect of this ongoing
investigation has concerned what Haneke considers the “consumable”
way in which violence is represented in Hollywood movies . In this arena,
he has consistently challenged critics and film viewers, in the name of
art, to consider their own responsibility for what they watch and to ask
themselves just what it is they are really doing when they seek to be
“merely” entertained by a studio-produced Hollywood thriller.
This has placed Haneke in a somewhat anomalous position, for many
ofhis films are too intellectual and self-consciously avant-garde to attract
his presumed target audience (those viewers who actually watch violent
thrillers), yet simultaneously too graphic and upsetting to please the majority
of the art -film crowd-those looking for something “life-affirming,”
preferably in a foreign language with English words on the bottom of the
screen. And then there is the radicality of his formal means, including
a purposely fragmented and confusing narrative and a liberal use of the
long-take in which “nothing happens,” as the proverbial criticism of this
powerful, if demanding, aesthetic would have it.
Haneke, now approaching seventy, is an extremely well-read European
intellectual who originally came from the theater and who has
also been trained in and profoundly influenced by classical music. Many
critics have taken up this latter aspect of his films in some detail (see
especially Frey, “Cinema,” “Supermodernity”; Vicari; Grundmann) ;
however, owing t o space constraints and the lack o f the requisite expertise
on the part of the present writer, this study will largely pass over the
fascinating musical connections that obtain in his films . Rather, it will
concern itself with an elaboration of the director’s recurring themes in

Benny´s Video

light of his formal cinematic techniques, primarily those that are visual
or (nonmusically) aural.
Michael Haneke was hom in 1942. His career is something of an
anomaly, since he had worked in Austrian and German television for
nearly two decades before making his first feature film, The Seventh
Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989), for theatrical release. He has
since made eight or nine (depending on how you count them) highly
distinctive theatrical films that long ago captured the attention of festivalgoing
critics around the world but have only relatively recently come
to the attention of the larger art-film public, especially the most recent
French-language productions starring Isabelle Huppert and Juliette
Binoche. It is these films that this book will focus upon.
The earlier, quite fascinating, and only recently unearthed television
films-which, alas, are too numerous and too scarce to examine
closely here-often present themselves, surprisingly, in the guise of
somewhat old-fashioned modernist experimentation. In their formal
rigor, frank themes, and general harshness of tone, they are the polar
opposite of what in the United States would generally be considered a
“television film.”1 The full frontal female nudity and the self-consciously,
resolutely downbeat Weltanschauung unashamedly expressed in these
nearly thirty-year-old television productions underscore the vast gulf that
has always separated much European television from its unrecognizable
American cousin. In terms of Haneke’s career, what is important to keep
in mind, as he told the American critic Scott Foundas, was that for him
working in television “was not a matter of not having the opportunity
to make a real film. But rather, I wanted to find my own language.”
The other noteworthy element in these early films (which have never
been commercially released in any country or format) is a bitter, ongoing
sociopolitical critique of the middle class, a beloved target of most
German-speaking artists but especially, it sometimes seems, those from
Austria. His masterpiece of this period, the two-part Lemmings (Lemminge,
1979), is a brilliant, full-scale assault on bourgeois pieties, yet its
critique is also historically specific and attempts to account for the spiritual
emptiness of the generation-Haneke’s own-whose parents’ lives
were defined by the exigencies of World War II and Nazism. (He has
returned to this generational, sociohistorical vein in The White Ribbon

The white ribbon

[Das Weisse Band, 2009] , which takes place just before the outbreak of
World War 1.) Unfortunately, what is also occasionally on display in this
film, which is set in 1959 (part I) and 1979 (part II), is the less palatable
side of the director’s work and personality that occasionally comes into
view: the hectoring scold and unassailable moral arbiter.
It is probably a mistake to try to analyze Haneke’s work of any period
solely in terms of the aesthetic protocols of international art-film production.
Rather, the profound, never fully explained unhappiness that engulfs
many of his characters-in the television work and the later films-is
best understood in relation to the irrational violence and profound malaise
infecting the fictional characters of his countrywoman, the Nobel
Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek, and other cinematic figures, like
the younger filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, 200 1 ; Import/Export,
2007), both of whom also concentrate on horribly lost souls who seem to
have no overt rationale for the ultra-intensity of their frustration, violence,
and inhumanity.
At least some of this bitterness may be traced to Austria’s particular
relationship to the events before, during, and after World War II, especially
regarding the never-resolved, little-examined dalliance with the
Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria. Other countries,
like France and Italy, have had their own postwar devils to wrestle with,
in terms of the elaborate discourses of “victimhood” that have had to be
generated, retrospectively, by each society, but Austria has had particular
difficulty justifying its warm embrace of the Nazi Anschluss of 1 938
while also claiming bragging rights as Hitler’s “first victims.” As Haneke
himself has said, “In Austria today you still hear people proclaim that
‘None of us were Nazis.’ No one will admit to being a Nazi; they were
all victims of the Nazis” (Porton so).
In addition, the Austrian population and military suffered much
more immediately and severely than the French, who in effect dropped
out of the war within a few months. We see the psychological scars of
this suffering, and of the refusal to confront the compromised past, in
the work of Haneke and Jelinek and, at a further remove, Seidl and
other younger figures. (The autobiographical element has also to be
taken into account in trying to understand a film like Lemmings, given
the fact that the characters who populate the film are the same age and
live in the same town as the director who created them.)

The seventh continent

With his theatrical films, beginning with The Seventh Continent
( 1989 ) , Haneke switches gears. His general social critique about the
inhumanity of modern life is still paramount, but what now comes
more fully into view is a particular feature of that critique, his ongoing
exploration of the cinematic and televisual representation of
violence-a critique that is itself sometimes expressed in a violent
fashion. A family destroys all their possessions and then themselves,
graphically, in The Seventh Continent. In Benny’s Video, a teenager
from a cosseted bourgeois family kills a young girl he’s recently met
with a bolt gun used to slaughter hogs, while capturing the action on
video. The psychological pressures that lead a military cadet to kill
four people in a bank are explored in 71 Fragments of a Chronology
of Chance, while Funny Games presents two young men who torture
and eventually murder a father, mother, and their young son. In the
later French-language films, Haneke moves away from this focus on
violence and its representation in the media toward a more generalized
critique of contemporary, especially urban, life. The White Ribbon applies
the same critique, but this time to an historical period a century
in the past.
The films that focus on the representation of violence, however,
raise a perhaps unintended moral question: To what extent do these
films also participate in the “pleasures” of the violence they ostensibly
critique? An earlier model would be Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork
Orange ( 197 1 ) , which, intentionally antiviolence, has been thought by
many critics to revel in its very graphic depictions of violence.
It is perhaps appropriate here to cite some of the things that Haneke
and others have said on this subject, though the question will also be
considered on a film-by-film basis throughout this book One camp wants
to absolve Haneke of any responsibility. Christopher Sharrett has said
that one of Haneke’s most notorious films, Funny Games ( 1997), does
not “participate, for all its relentlessness, in the excesses it criticizes,”
though such an arbitrary boundary is difficult to establish. The critic
Scott Foundas says that movies like Funny Games and Benny’s Video
“are graphic and intense, but Haneke doesn’t (as his detractors would
claim) profit from their violence. Rather, he reclaims sensitivity to violence
(and to human suffering) from the exploitative wastelands of Jerrys,
Bruckheimer and Springer.” Others, however, like the New York Times

Funny Games

critic A. 0. Scott, speaking of the failed 2007 American remake of Funny
Games, has called Haneke a “fraud” who tortures not only his characters
but his audience as well.
By way of self-explanation, Haneke has said that “the society we
live in is drenched in violence. I represent it on the screen because I
am afraid of it, and I think it is important that we should reflect on it.
. . . I think that the things that are going well in society are difficult to
present dramatically. In my 20 years of working in the theater, I only
staged one comedy, and that was my single failure” (Badt).
Haneke’s focus, in other words, is on the ubiquitous presence of
violence in the real world and the representation of such violence in the
media. For obvious reasons, the latter is more sharply foregrounded in
his films, since they are inevitably part of that media. Representation is
always about “showing,” and thus the question that inevitably arises is
what can and cannot legitimately be shown, or “re-presented.” Asked
by Foundas how he is able to treat sensational subjects in what Foundas
describes as “a non-sensational manner,” the director’s surprisingly
moralistic reply is that while he respects the gravity of these events, a
lot of Hollywood films simply exploit them. “For example, if you take
Schindler’s List and you have that shower scene, I think it’s absolutely
disgusting to show that. One must not show such things.”
Instead, Han eke chooses to keep most violence offscreen: “I use your
fantasy. I think it’s one of the most important things for a filmmaker . . . .
The audience has to make their pictures, and whatever I show means
diminishing the fantasy of the viewer” (Foundas). The fact that most of
the brutality in the director’s films is offscreen is also used by his devotees
to exonerate Haneke of any moral failing in this regard. But just because
violence is not actually pictured, it is nevertheless always heard, and its
aftermath is seen, and thus it is always directly represented in his films
in some complex way that goes beyond the visual.
Haneke also knows that the question is more complex than merely
showing or not showing violence onscreen.
I’m trying as best I can to describe a situation as I see it without bullshitting
or disingenuousness, but by so doing I subscribe to the notion
that communication is still possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing

Unknow Code

this. I cannot make comedies about these subjects, so it is true the
films are bleak.
The new technologies, of both media representation and the political
world, allow greater damage with ever-increasing speed. The media
contribute to a confused consciousness through this illusion that we know
all things at all times, and always with this great sense of immediacy. We
live in this environment where we think we know more things faster,
when in fact we know nothing at all. This propels us into terrible internal
conflicts, which then creates angst, which in tum causes aggression, and
this creates violence. This is a vicious cycle. (Sharrett)
And whence comes Haneke’s obsession with violence and its representation,
when so many other directors are content to exploit it ruthlessly? “I
think that I am someone who is creative, and sensitive to every form of
suffering,” the director says, in an interview translated for this volume.
“That makes me think of Wim Wenders’s ffim The End ofViolence, which
begins by trying to define violence. I myself have asked that question,
and the answer that I found is that violence is the ultimate recourse of
power against the will of others who must then be subjected to it.” This
definition of violence is especially applicable to The White Ribbon .
Presiding over Haneke’s aesthetics is the notion that films can be
art and that true art requires a contract with the audience. Mainstream
cinema, on the contrary, emphasizes “the commercial aspects of the
medium . . . . I think what I’ m proposing is a very old contractual agreement-
that both the producer and receiver of a work of art take each
other seriously. On the other hand, today’s conventional cinema, or mass
cinema . .. sees the audience member as a bank machine, whose only
function is to spit out money. It pretends to satisfy viewers’ needs, but
refuses to do so” (Porton 51). Above all, Haneke feels that audience
members must be persuaded–or forced, if necessary-to contribute
to a film’s meaning themselves and to recognize their complicity in its
psychological dynamics. It is here that the director’s aesthetic mission
sometimes comes perilously close to aesthetic coercion.
The director’s formal techniques, especially in the earliest films of
the “theatrical” period, are complex and invigorating but simultaneously
difficult and off-putting to those with little experience with art films. Interestingly,
his use of techniques that might in another context be called


postmodernist is anything but, for much of the motivation for his transgressive
subject matter and his distancing techniques is modernist to the
core. This modernism is linked tightly to a now rather hoary concept of art,
which, like the word “truth,” is never far from his lips. Both mark him as
something of a throwback to an earlier generation, or perhaps a younger
member of the modernist group of directors that includes canonical figures
like Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Bergman, and Tarkovsky.
Formal techniques, for Haneke, also carry a philosophical rationale.
If he sometimes maddeningly refuses to explain character motivation in a
conventional manner, for example, it’s because “every kind of explanation
is just something that’s there to make you feel better, and at the same
time it’s a lie. It’s a lie to calm you, because the real explanation would
be so complex, it would be impossible to have in go minutes of film or
zoo pages of a novel” (Foundas).
Similarly, many of his films rely upon a series of vignettes, fragments
that cut to black and often resist synthesis at a higher level. Again, the
result is a kind of counter-cinema that defies commercial considerations.
According to Haneke, films can never, by definition, show reality as a
whole, so fragmentation is the only honest way to proceed. One must
then “find the aesthetic means that will allow us to transfer this fragmented
look onto the screen” (Cieutat interview in this volume).
The fragments themselves often consist of a single long-take (with
the camera either stationary or panning to follow the characters), a technique,
originally championed by the celebrated French critic and theorist
Andre Bazin, that is notoriously bothersome to the generation raised
on the jumpy editing of MTV-and not only to them. This technique
represents an attempt to fashion a counter-cinema that would oppose
not only Hollywood filmmaking but its nefarious ally, television, with
which, having begun there, Haneke has a paradoxical relationship:
Perhaps I can connect [the long-take] to the issue of television. Television
accelerates our habits of seeing. Look, for example, at advertising
in that medium. The faster something is shown, the less able you are
to perceive it as an object occupying a space in physical reality and the
more it becomes something seductive. And the less real the image seems
to be, the quicker you buy the commodity it seems to depict.
Of course, this type of aesthetic has gamed the upper hand in

The pianist

comercial cinema. Television accelerates experience, but one needs time
to understand what one sees, which the current media disallows. Not
just understand on an intellectual level, but emotionally. The cinema
can offer very little that is new; everything that is said has been said
a thousand times, but cinema still has the capacity, I think, to let us
experience the world anew. (Sharrett)
This capacity to reexperience the world is thus reinvigorated by
the long-take aesthetic. “Code inconnu [Code Unknown, Haneke’s first
French-language film, released in zooo] consists very much of static
sequences, with each shot from only one perspective, precisely because
I don’t want to patronize or manipulate the viewer, or at least to the
smallest degree possible” (Sharrett).
Nor is Haneke naive regarding the question of manipulation, a subject
that always entails rethinking the role of the audience, though he
does seem to believe that manipulation can be quantified: “Of course,
film is always manipulation, but if each scene is only one shot, then, I
think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one
tries to stay close to a ‘real time’ framework. The reduction of montage
to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that
contemplation is required” (Sharrett).2
But if even the most careful cinema is always manipulative, why
bother? What kind of solution to the world’s problems can filmmakers
hope to provide? “The point is that there are no solutions,” Haneke
bleakly insists.
The mainstream cinema tries to feed you the idea that there are solutions,
but that’s bullshit. You can make a lot of money with these lies.
But if you take the viewer seriously as your partner, the only thing that
you can do is to put the questions strongly. In this case, maybe he will
find some answer. If you give the answer, you lie. Whatever kind of
security you try to feed somebody is an illusion …. I want to make it
clear: it’s not that I hate mainstream cinema. It’s perfectly fine. There
are a lot of people who need to escape, because they are in very difficult
situations. . . .B ut this has nothing to do with an art form.A n art form
is obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little piece of the truth … .
These questions, ”What is reality?” and ”What is reality in a movie?”
are a main part of my work. (Foundas)

An essential part of this confrontation with reality necessarily entails the
self-exploration of the artist-some of it, notably in Funny Games, of a
self-reflexive variety. It is precisely this gesture, according to Haneke,
that leads us back to art, because, to be considered an art form, film
must challenge its own existence: “The question is, is film merely entertainment,
or is it more? If it is art, it has to be more. Art can be entertaining.
The Passion of St. Matthew is entertaining, [but] it is more
than diversion, it is concentration, [it] focuses your thoughts” So cinema
can change the world? “No, but it can make it a less sad place than it
already is” (Badt).


Brunette, Peter. The films of Michael Haneke. USA, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2010. Pages 1-10.

“Michael Haneke Documentary” Dir. Nina Kusturica